Archetypal Literary Criticism - Heroic Quest Pattern
Here is a short summary of a presentation I often share with my struggling students. Sometimes, for those who are not avid readers, it helps to have a key to understanding literature. Knowing a pattern frequently exists in books they are "forced" to read gives them something to look forward to, which sparks their interest.
I usually begin with a few important definitions:
The Heroic Quest Pattern is the most common archetypal pattern found in literature. The quest pattern reflects the hero or protagonist’s life journey. Just as circumstances in our lives are different, the circumstances faced by literary characters are also different. On our journeys, we have similar experiences, but not the same ones. Our lives go through stages.
I call the first stage the Invitation to Adventure. In this initial stage, the hero is often unhappy, living a mundane life, stuck in his comfort zone. Somehow the hero is called to an adventure, frequently unwillingly. He might receive a telephone call, be the victim of a crime, get a new job offer, get lost in a cave, etcetera. In any event, he is on his way through his life journey.
The second major stage is the Ordeal. Once the hero accepts the challenge, even reluctantly, we expect trouble. The struggle could be a physical one, like a challenge in nature. The struggle could be psychological, like a battle with cowardice. The ordeal could even be imaginary, like a fight to the death against monsters. Whatever the difficulty, it will be present in literature as in life, because without it, there is no story.
Finally, literature depicts a Transformation of the protagonist. As in real life, every experience during the hero's journey changes him forever, simply because he experienced it. We are born, we live, and we die, so the hero must also always die. The death of the protagonist need not be literal. It is often symbolical. The hero is transformed by virtue of his experience. The old hero is no longer present, but has been forever changed by the completion of his journey.
The Heroic Quest Pattern is common in literature. Since literature reflects human life, it also contains the sum total of human experience and imagination. As in life, heroes are invited to adventure, embark on journeys or ordeals, and symbolically die. Then, they are reborn with new wisdom acquired on the journey. They are transformed. Knowing this empowers readers. They look for the stages of the quest before they occur, making the reading experience a journey in its own right.
For a more detailed examination of this concept, I invite my readers, and especially my university students, to peruse Surviving the Journey: A Universal Approach for the Student Critic.